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Op-Ed: Scientists or soothsayers? The Austin bombings are a case for criminal profilers

The scene outside an explosion at a home in Austin on March 12.
(Ricardo B. Brazziell / TNS)

The police and FBI are searching for a bomber who left three packages that exploded at homes in Austin, Texas, this month, killing two and injuring two others. Their work won’t be easy. Violent crimes inflicted on strangers are known to be the hardest to solve. If the Austin case fits the pattern of previous serial bombers, agents will find no conventional motives leading to the culprit — no money quarrels or lover’s jealousy. Bombers, like other serial offenders, have their own logic about what they’re doing and why.

In most cases like this, the FBI will rely on its criminal profilers, called the Behavioral Analysis Unit, to decode the bomber’s opaque grievance. What strange sort of person is this and what wounding life experience led to this deadly pursuit?

Sixty years after its origination, profiling is a crucial law enforcement tool precisely for its ability to address these questions. Profiling has nonetheless struggled to shed its reputation as junk science, a dubious combination of psychiatry and presentiment. “Criminal Minds” and other television shows have muddled matters by presenting profilers as genius-scientists with an almost supernatural ability to identify wrongdoers.

Profiling was developed by Dr. James Brussel, a little-known psychiatrist of eccentric habits. In 1956, the New York City police came to him in desperation: For sixteen years detectives had searched for a serial bomber who had planted 32 homemade explosives in the city’s most crowded public spaces, injuring 15.

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Brussel had theorized that he could help identify the bomber by applying “common psychiatric principals in reverse.” Psychiatrists normally evaluate patients and consider how they might react to life’s difficulties — conflict with a boss, sexual frustrations, the loss of a parent. He proposed to start with the bomber’s behavior and anticipate what sort of person he might be — his sexuality, work history and appearance.

Profiling has struggled to shed its reputation as junk science, a dubious combination of psychiatry and presentiment.

On a December afternoon the head of the bomb squad emptied satchels of evidence onto Brussel’s desk. He examined the material for two hours, then gave police a description of the bomber: a friendless, unemployed middle-aged Slav living in a northern suburb of the city with an older female relative. “When you catch him,” Brussel said, “and I have no doubt you will, he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit. And it will be buttoned.”

A month later detectives arrested George Metesky at his home in Waterbury, Conn. He fit the description down to the jacket. Within an hour he confessed.

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Brussel relied on a combination of Freudian theory, Sherlock Holmes-like deductive reasoning and a heavy dose of intuition. “When you think about an unknown criminal long enough, when you’ve assembled all the known facts about him and poked at them and stirred them about in your mind, you begin to see the man,” he later wrote.

Brussel successfully applied his reverse psychiatry, later called profiling, to the Boston Strangler and other prominent cases. In the early 1970s the FBI adopted his idea, but shifted the emphasis away from intuition and toward data collection. Still, just in case it proved to be an embarrassment, the FBI at first confined this semi-secret experiment to a windowless room at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.

By the 1980s, however, the Behavioral Analysis Unit had established itself as a national clearinghouse for crime data, translating autopsies, crime-scene photos and other forensics into profiles of great accuracy. Police precincts could request urgent help 365 days a year. And they did so with growing frequency as deviant killers such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Kaczynski made headlines.

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Still, doubts about profiling’s legitimacy persisted. In a 2007 article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell argued that profiling, like fortunetelling, is written in such broad language that it can validate almost any conclusion one cares to draw from it. “Brussel did not really understand the mind of the Mad Bomber,” Gladwell wrote of the 1956 New York case. “He seems to have understood only that, if you make a great number of predictions, the ones that were wrong will soon be forgotten, and the ones that turn out to be true will make you famous.”

Gladwell’s comments understandably infuriate profilers to this day. A prominent case such as the one unfolding in Austin can bring out skeptics, but profilers know from thousands of cases amassed in FBI files that, although their work doesn’t do miracles like on TV, it reliably steers investigators toward quirks of appearance, medical histories and other defining qualities. Most importantly, it helps narrow the search window by weeding out unlikely suspects.

At this moment in Austin, profilers are likely waiting for a communication from the bomber — if one hasn’t already surfaced — in hopes that it may contain telling cadences of speech, grammatical lapses, or regional word choices. Meanwhile, the bomb parts may reveal a military background, either in the U.S. or other regions. Of course these deductions are fallible, but assembled like pixels they start to resolve into a coherent picture of a killer.

Michael Cannell is the author of “Incendiary: the Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling.”

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